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Chapter Sixteen: The Execution 
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Post Chapter Sixteen: The Execution
At the middle of the book, Bulgakov tells the story of the execution of Jesus Christ.

The various streams, the wiles of Satan, the travails of the Master, the concerns of Bulgakov himself about his life in Russia and his homeland Ukraine, come together in this narration symbolising the descent into the abyss.

For some reason, Bulgakov’s image of two rings of steel, the Roman infantry and cavalry, blockading the bald mountain of Golgotha upon which Christ is crucified as robber and rebel between the two thieves, reminded me of the story of deliberate genocide told by Robert Conquest in The Harvest of Sorrow, of how Stalin blockaded Ukraine with a military ring of steel in 1932 to institute the Holodomor, the hunger plague, and starved up to ten million people to death by stealing their food.

It is rather like how Jesus, the one for all, represents all the Jews killed by Rome in its pitiless wars of conquest and empire. Whether or not Bulgakov has the specific travail of his homeland in mind, the placement of the crucifixion story at the central point of his narrative looks a deliberate comparison between the Gospel passion story and the suffering of Russia and the captive nations under communism. He invites us to see Jesus Christ as the archetype of senseless human innocent suffering. He opens the question of how we could believe in a God who permits such evil. He further implies the inevitable triumph of good over evil in the rising of Jesus from the dead as the model for the overthrow of communist tyranny.

Bulgakov plays up the cruel power of Rome as a model for the power of the Soviets, describing the centurion Ratslayer as pitiless even to his own troops. He then returns to the events from the second chapter, titled Pontius Pilate, which had been related by Satan, while making unclear if this continuation of the story is being told by Satan or is from the secret novel about Pontius Pilate mentioned by the Master, itself an onion model within the book of Bulgakov's own novel.

The other interesting but mysterious subplot in this chapter is the effort by Matthew the tax collector to save Jesus from the cross, first stealing a breadknife aiming to kill Jesus to relieve his torture, and then chasing the execution parade from Jerusalem in the effort to carry out his plan.

Bulgakov certainly makes the suffering on the cross into a gruesome scene of extreme powerless and gratuitous pain, featuring the inability of the victim to do anything to remove the hordes of bloodsucking flies infesting their every orifice and limb. Bulgakov presents his own theodicy here, wondering how a God could exist who could allow such human extremity.


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Post Re: Chapter Sixteen: The Execution
Robert Tulip wrote:
At the middle of the book, Bulgakov tells the story of the execution of Jesus Christ.

For some reason, Bulgakov’s image of two rings of steel, the Roman infantry and cavalry, blockading the bald mountain of Golgotha upon which Christ is crucified as robber and rebel between the two thieves, reminded me of ... how Stalin blockaded Ukraine with a military ring of steel in 1932 to institute the Holodomor, the hunger plague, and starved up to ten million people to death by stealing their food.


Well, it might just be that everything about Stalinism reminds you of that, but I don't think this is an unrealistic reference. There are some complications, though.

First, the main point of Matthew Levi's intervention seems to have been to kill Jesus before he had to undergo torture. Matthew is the putative author of the first gospel, of course, whom we are therefore expected to compare to Bulgakov (and therefore, the Master, I gather). His first regret was not warning Yeshua about the implications of his invitation to danger, and from that I infer that Bulgakov feels he should have seen the implications of the revolution and should have warned the people. But the second was that he did not manage to kill Yeshua before the torture reached its climax. Somehow that is difficult for me to translate into some sort of response to the Holodomor.

The second problem with the Holodomor interpretation, for me, is the double ring of steel. The infantry are presumably the proletariat, and the cavalry represent the party, (or perhaps it is party and "Inner Circle".) While they are obviously present to prevent trouble, and to symbolize the naked assertion of right based on might, it is not clear why they would be seen as both part of the Execution of the Ukrainian kulaks.

On balance, though, as I have been going over this comparison in my mind, a number of items which looked inconvenient for me on first blush turn out to possibly be clever references to his real subject matter. And I have trouble making the Gulag, Stalin's other great descent into the abyss, match any better.

For example, why might Bulgakov be thought of a person who managed somehow, by going around to the back side of the mountain, to witness what the rings of steel functioned to keep people away from? I gather he had some connections to the party, and probably some connections to Ukrainians (I had not realized he was from Ukraine til you mentioned it here, but Wikipedia says he was from Russian roots). So maybe he did know about the hunger plague.

Likewise, the storm which leads Rat-catcher to put a speedy end to the suffering of the "villains" (with the executioner pronouncing "Hail to the magnanimous Hegemon") has no obvious corollary in the story of the hunger plague. But I note that Matthew is the only gospel writer to refer to the darkening of the sun at the time of the crucifixion, and Matthew also uses the powerful imagery of the rending of the temple curtain and the resurrection of saints past, not given a corresponding role by Bulgakov. So it may be that Bulgakov is likewise taking some liberties to put in a gathering storm (the book was apparently written in 1937-39, when Hitler's antagonism to Communism was beginning to gather real force) and some unresurrected bodies as general framing for the horrid treatment of the people by Stalin, temporarily alleviated to get back to war preparation, even though Ukraine remains as central symbol of that "execution".

I sense some vague intuition on Bulgakov's part to the "necrophilia" alleged against Stalin and Hitler in later writing. These monsters were not just willing to sacrifice people, but seemed to have a need to kill large numbers. I am suspicious of anyone who goes around fingering enemies and needing to triumph over someone, but those two represent a different level of sickness altogether, demanding not just power but slaughter to illustrate their power to themselves.

A few other side notes. First, "Bald Mountain" is evidently a reference to a gathering of witches (or similar evil folk trafficking with the powers of darkness) in Russian folklore. The Central European "Walpurgisnacht" is, according to Wiki, part of the same heritage of tales. And there is possibly a connection in the popular mind to Good Friday. One thinks of Joseph Kony and Pol Pot as later examples of completely rampant urge to dominate others through violence and to wipe out all sense of decency, which is the horror symbolized by witchcraft.

Second, I found myself wondering if the oddly named characters such as "Rat-catcher" would be allusions that his literary friends coult make sense of. Would that one be Beria? Were the other villains also "enemies of the people" that the names "Gestas" and "Dismas" would summon up? Is the hooded man some kind of reference? Certainly "Rat-catcher" sounds like the great cat in the more current activities, and therefor the hooded man could represent Woland's other henchman. All speculation, of course.

Finally, on the subject of theodicy, I don't think one can see it properly without taking it seriously as an observation, a reaction, about the cosmos. Whether or not one believes in a personal God acting in history, the despair of seeing evil act in all its might has to challenge the general outlook of the average person. Is life really that horrible, at base, that it will not stop industrial scale genocides and the insistence by might that it not be subjected to the requirements of right? Is all our reason for caring about goodness just self-deception and even self-mockery? Those are the real questions of theodicy.

That Bulgakov was left facing such horror is good reason to map his story of the insane asylum onto his own depression. He is, of course, the really sane one with all the others around being simple dupes being danced around on puppet strings or even madmen themselves.



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Post Re: Chapter Sixteen: The Execution
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Post Re: Chapter Sixteen: The Execution
Harry Marks wrote:
it might just be that everything about Stalinism reminds you of that, but I don't think this is an unrealistic reference.
There is something about the blockade of Ukraine in the early 1930s that seems to me the epitome of horror, rather like Pol Pot’s Year Zero, or Mao’s Four Olds. Since Bulgakov was from Kiev, and saw his helpless homeland crucified by pitiless atheists, it makes sense that in his satire of Stalin as Satan he should depict his country as Christ crucified on the cross, especially with the military flourish of the two rings of steel stopping anyone from getting in or out. Robert Conquest says that happened in Ukraine. The Russians had quite a good line in barrier troops, as explained at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrier_t ... e_Red_Army
The lovingly named “SMERSH” penal battalions were tasked to shoot deserters, a method developed by Trotsky in the Civil War and perfected under Stalin in the Second World War. This is the type of imagery that Bulgakov is evoking with his two rings of Roman troops around Christ.
Harry Marks wrote:
There are some complications, though. First, the main point of Matthew Levi's intervention seems to have been to kill Jesus before he had to undergo torture.
This is quite a horrific and puzzling image. While you are right it does not map directly onto some advocacy of mass suicide in the face of communist victory, it does at least evoke the Socrates story, with everyone upset he did not accept the offer of exile. Bulgakov’s rather extreme point is that a clean death is better than the tyrannical tortuous suffering inflicted by communism.
Harry Marks wrote:
Matthew is the putative author of the first gospel, of course, whom we are therefore expected to compare to Bulgakov (and therefore, the Master, I gather). His first regret was not warning Yeshua about the implications of his invitation to danger, and from that I infer that Bulgakov feels he should have seen the implications of the revolution and should have warned the people. But the second was that he did not manage to kill Yeshua before the torture reached its climax. Somehow that is difficult for me to translate into some sort of response to the Holodomor.
In his other books, Bulgakov does express a sickness in the pit of his stomach about the advancing zombie horde. He served the Whites in Grozny during the civil war, where he wrote anti-communist agitprop.
Harry Marks wrote:
The second problem with the Holodomor interpretation, for me, is the double ring of steel. The infantry are presumably the proletariat, and the cavalry represent the party, (or perhaps it is party and "Inner Circle".) While they are obviously present to prevent trouble, and to symbolize the naked assertion of right based on might, it is not clear why they would be seen as both part of the Execution of the Ukrainian kulaks.
No, there was an actual military blockade of Ukraine, a double ring of besieging troops that surrounded the country to prevent escape or succour.
Harry Marks wrote:
Finally, on the subject of theodicy, I don't think one can see it properly without taking it seriously as an observation, a reaction, about the cosmos. Whether or not one believes in a personal God acting in history, the despair of seeing evil act in all its might has to challenge the general outlook of the average person.
Theodicy is the problem of how a good God can allow evil to occur. The average outlook tends to vary with circumstances. Rampant evil tends to destroy faith in the power of God, whereas peaceful abundance puts people in mind of providence. The situation in the USSR was far more at the rampant evil end of the moral scale.
Harry Marks wrote:
Is life really that horrible, at base, that it will not stop industrial scale genocides and the insistence by might that it not be subjected to the requirements of right?
One of the themes of existential philosophers of that era, such as Heidegger, was cosmic dread, an abysmal sense of failure of any ultimate meaning. The awful thing in Heidegger was that his moral compass was so skewed by this sense of nothingness that he supported Hitler. The victory of the West in the Second World War generated immense moral capital for precisely this reason, that Roosevelt made the end of genocide a primary moral cause, a redemptive idea of just war. So the USA has traded on its city on the hill metaphysics of liberty and rights, as a way to lead a rules-based international order, even if that is fraying.
Harry Marks wrote:
Is all our reason for caring about goodness just self-deception and even self-mockery? Those are the real questions of theodicy.
People care about goodness because goodness is good. And in the long term, things that are good are better than things that are bad. The trouble is that in the short term, the bad can overwhelm the good. The sense of extreme existential doubt that you describe was expressed by Christ on the cross in his annoyed comment about why God had forsaken him. The question of faith is whether the way of the cross leads to new life, via the dolorific path of suffering, endurance, character and hope. The fear is that the triumph of evil will extinguish hope, as in Big Brother’s image of the eternal jackboot.
Harry Marks wrote:
That Bulgakov was left facing such horror is good reason to map his story of the insane asylum onto his own depression. He is, of course, the really sane one with all the others around being simple dupes being danced around on puppet strings or even madmen themselves.
There is a Dantean sense of ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here’, expressed by Solzhenitsyn in his novel First Circle, where he compares the USSR to hell on earth, precisely due to this institutionalised insanity.


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Post Re: Chapter Sixteen: The Execution
Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
The second problem with the Holodomor interpretation, for me, is the double ring of steel. The infantry are presumably the proletariat, and the cavalry represent the party, (or perhaps it is party and "Inner Circle".)
No, there was an actual military blockade of Ukraine, a double ring of besieging troops that surrounded the country to prevent escape or succour.
Well, that makes better sense of things, but did Bulgakov know about the double ring? And would he have expected his readers to know about it? Perhaps the horrifying image of it was enough for him to decide to use it even if it would not register with readers.
Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
Is life really that horrible, at base, that it will not stop industrial scale genocides and the insistence by might that it not be subjected to the requirements of right?
One of the themes of existential philosophers of that era, such as Heidegger, was cosmic dread, an abysmal sense of failure of any ultimate meaning. The awful thing in Heidegger was that his moral compass was so skewed by this sense of nothingness that he supported Hitler.

The word that carries all the freight here is "ultimate". We have some sense that the good guys should win (despite all evidence) and that karma (or something) should punish evil. That is clearly a projection. So what makes any long run, or philosophical basis, or grounding in experience, "ultimate"?

We observe that we come equipped with the ability to abandon our attachment to goodness when fear gets the best of us. What tells us we will be sorry for that later if we buy into it? Or, to put it more in the context of evidence, what gives nearly everyone the capacity to choose good in the face of fear? Where does the feeling come from that it is "worth it" to face pain and evil and still choose good? What is that sense of "worth" referring to?

The question may not seem vital, but we have to ask if Heidegger's error, grasping after order and strength, indicated some vital misunderstanding about that ultimacy.

Robert Tulip wrote:
The victory of the West in the Second World War generated immense moral capital for precisely this reason, that Roosevelt made the end of genocide a primary moral cause, a redemptive idea of just war. So the USA has traded on its city on the hill metaphysics of liberty and rights, as a way to lead a rules-based international order, even if that is fraying.
Reading Coates, and Zinn before him, about that mythology of liberty and rights, has clarified for me that there was always something about it of the sham. I am not sure that the critical reading is any less illusory.

They both (idealistic and critical) have about them the air of something dimly perceived within the mists. For sure the ideology of freedom and rights took on life, and gathered around it the necessary strength to resist internal division and moral corruption. But for sure it also did so partly by turning a blind eye to horrible abuse that made a mockery of the ideals. Is either of them the real reading of the situation? Or is the dialectic between aspiration and limitation the real setting of the ultimacy we believe about good?

The exceptionalism that America believes about itself is actually the result mainly of natural security - from lacking the need to reinforce strength due to enemies threatening to dominate it. Rather than see America as special in character, with some kind of moral superiority (which cannot be sustained with the stain of slavery and genocide on it), it would be wiser to look at America as the chance humanity was given to turn the raw materials of a rather brutal society of feudal domination into an open-ended experiment in rule of law and equality of opportunity. In that sense there is as much hope to be found in the British transformation of Calvinist ethical internalization into a viable system of checks and balances, or the French transformation of rational idealism into the ethos of Republicanism.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
Is all our reason for caring about goodness just self-deception and even self-mockery? Those are the real questions of theodicy.
People care about goodness because goodness is good. And in the long term, things that are good are better than things that are bad. The trouble is that in the short term, the bad can overwhelm the good.
Well, yes and no. We are all familiar with the tendency to choose the tantalizing illusion over the truly rewarding option. And we know that in the long run the illusions are dispelled and we can see how foolish they were. So we seek to train ourselves to recognize the good and be on good terms with it.

But for thousands of years the world was ruled by systems in which the use of violence was necessary to have any access to what we think of as good things. Moral freedom itself appeared to depend on having the armed might to make a stand for it. There was no long term in which the bad proved illusory - it was simple necessity from start to finish.

The urges involved, to dominate, to achieve, to fight, to give the orders, to be one of those at the table, are still quite capable of gathering philosophical support:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/opin ... collection

In this version, Stalin was choosing the smart option and the Ukrainian kulaks were pissing into the wind. He won, game over, enough said.

Robert Tulip wrote:
The sense of extreme existential doubt that you describe was expressed by Christ on the cross in his annoyed comment about why God had forsaken him. The question of faith is whether the way of the cross leads to new life, via the dolorific path of suffering, endurance, character and hope. The fear is that the triumph of evil will extinguish hope, as in Big Brother’s image of the eternal jackboot.

What is unusual about the last century is that we have, in some sense, overcome the jackboot. Rule of law is firmly established in the most developed countries, and belief in it, if not always understanding of it, is now deeply rooted. Yet we have the possibility of nuclear extinction hanging over us, as well as the apparent inability to come to grips with climate change, the persistence of tribalism and ethnic-based domination systems, and the inability to put the rule of law above these.

Rather than argue that in the long run reason will overcome these obstacles, which may or may not be true, I suggest that there is an ultimacy about good but that it is not found in some strength to overcome and bind evil.

To make some case for this, let me turn first to Aquinas. While I confess I have not read any of his work, my understanding is that Aquinas outlined a system in which people in various "stations" (the word is evocative, so I am not too fussy about whether he actually used it, or some Latin equivalent) had a role to play in representing the reign of God. The men of violence were in charge of fending off others, to defend that which is right. In a similar spirit, bandits have been dubbed "masterless men".

Now obviously we have to be able to deconstruct this, to recognize that the men of violence lived off the labor of others whom they kept subject with their use of violence. Those without a "station" would become "the wretched of the earth" and die. It was a system with little of mercy about it, or human relationship. The apparent moral freedom of the violent was itself an illusion. It was, one must say, a Darwinian system.

Yet in Aquinas' rationalizations, we can dimly perceive the effort to see through the rule of violence to a rule of order. There is a sense that it is possible for justice and right to organize the chaos of violent struggle for mastery, and thus to make the space for mercy and empathy much broader and more enduring than before.

I would like to suggest that this is a specific representation of the ultimacy of good. Because it can organize the impulses which so easily lead to evil, because it can "master" the task of creating a social order which allows us to master our own foolish impulses, good has an endurance and even inevitability about it. This is not dependent on defeating evil, but it will naturally take on the challenge of preventing evil from controlling things.

To attempt to put it in a nutshell, evil is born of chaos and breeds chaos, while good is born of peaceful order and builds peaceful order. And even the mighty, even the Men of Iron, face the option between that which they sense to be a force of chaos, and that which they sense to give meaning to life. (Read all about it in Macbeth).



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